A girl “dislocated” her jaw on a cheeseburger, but everything else on the field trip was fine. The kids toured campus and listened to a college lecture. No one cried.
I got here because after a few months of exploring Central America and contemplating my future in education, I scored a two-month job teaching Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to 11- and 12-year-olds in Renton, Wash. We didn’t start the comedy about a woman finding happiness by marrying a man who deprives her of food and sleep immediately, so we had time for other things like building college dreams and getting to know each other.
“Are you chewing gum?” a girl with a purple butterfly clip in her hair asked me on the first day.
“Why?” I asked.
“We can chew gum?”
“Ummm…” I swallowed.
“Can I go to my locker and get a book?” a boy in a DEPT OF PURE GENIUS shirt asked on the second day.
“Run quick,” I said.
“We’re allowed to run?”
All accidental revolutions considered, I started paying attention to the basic rules of the middle school handbook and to the quirky characteristics of my sixth graders who, like sixth graders elsewhere, love folding notebook paper into footballs, fortune-tellers, ninja stars, and inflatable sweet rice dumplings.
Last night I wasn’t sure if I’d have work today, so I was happy to see your absence in the online substitute register. I couldn’t find the lesson plan anywhere, so your students played volleyball and basketball.
In first period, a girl with dishwater hair didn’t want to serve, but when she reached back and went for a basic underhand the ball cleared the net, reminding me that serving a volleyball is no small thing, especially with onlookers, and that some days we take the form that gets results.
Your students in second period told me you’ve been recovering from back surgery, and that they knocked out their first sub. “What?” I asked. “Knocked out?” The kid got suspended, they explained, for hitting the woman in the head with a volleyball, and the other two kids who aimed but missed stuck around and got into new kinds of mischief, like rolling free weights down the stairs. And that’s why second period now walks laps instead of playing games.
When I get this book published I’m throwing a party like no other, and if you find me a literary agent, you can have the first stab at the cheesiest of cheese platters. (I’ve contacted about 40 agents so far and am still looking.) Here’s the beginning of my memoir, folks, the story of my first year of teaching. Thank you for reading!
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE FIRST DAY
Excerpted from “Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom: Spirited Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter After the Bell, and Other Rookie-Teacher Dreams.”
I stare at the outfit on the bed: brown khakis and a white dress shirt. Here is a headless, hand-less, foot-less teacher from Target. I am twenty-two, and I’m here because I stuttered as a child and fell in love with books as a way to avoid interacting with my peers. In fourth grade I got detention for reading No Coins, Please during math time. The teacher put my name on the board and forced me to skip recess and stay inside and read without interruption. As a teen I fell in love with writing because journaling on paper and inventing stories on the computer and manipulating line breaks in poems gave me a few spaces I could control. By ninth grade I had so much poetry on our family’s shared computer my mom organized the documents into folders and deleted some of the files along the way. When she told me “KEEP OUT,” “KEEP OUT 2,” and “KEEP OUT FINAL” were gone, I ran to my bedroom, laid on my bed, and clutched the second book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series.
“I didn’t mean to delete anything,” my mom said through my closed bedroom door. “I only hit ‘enter.’”
On Wednesday I’ll share the first chapter of my memoir “Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom: Spirited Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter After Class, and Other Rookie-Teacher Dreams.” I would LOVE for you to read it! Then find me a literary agent. Details below.
Mr. Smith is not your average teacher. He smokes cigarettes confiscated from students, serves fresh tea to a perpetually tardy boy, and when a young woman catches him wearing pajamas and reading Rolling Stone in Target, that becomes the topic for class discussion the next day.
Welcome to Derek Smith’s journal of his first year teaching English at a public high school. With relentless momentum and self-effacing honesty, Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom tells a hilarious and touching tale that romps though the education of one young man and 120 first-years in a run-down portable on the edge of campus. Smith, whose life is as fragmented and frantic as his students, skips and trips through a year in which he confronts sly-eyed rats, leaky ceiling tiles, misbehaving students, and one outlandish principal.
Chronicling both the sweep of American education and small successes of life and learning, Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom puts breath and bones on one of our nearly universal experiences: high school. LouAnne Johnson, bestselling author of Dangerous Minds, writes that Smith “has the soul of a poet, the wit of a stand-up comic, and the makings of an unforgettable teacher.” Bret Lott, bestselling author of Jewel, calls it “a sharp and funny and brutally honest book that has at its core a kind of shape-shifting elegance—it is at once a terror-ride through that first year of teaching and a nuanced homage… the result is a beautiful and funny story.”
The manuscript (49,000 words) is complete. A more formal proposal—including information about format and deliverables, primary and secondary markets, chapter summaries, competitive works, and endorsements—is available.
On the phone with an admin at a Utah high school, recommending my student teacher for a job / complimenting his work with our diverse population, and the admin asks, “At a low-income school? How is he with rigor? Our school is high-achieving…”
I understand. Our sophomores and juniors take the PSAT and SAT for free. Our talent show sells out. Our culinary students provide hors d’oeuvres for the Seattle International Film Festival, our student journalists produce professional publications, and our choir writes original compositions for graduation. Next week our annual multicultural mash-up takes over. Wanna come? Our students hold doors for visitors, so they’ll definitely hold one for you. You and I can go to ping-pong or anime club after school, and track practice some time after that. We’ll sit on the bleachers and watch our 4 x 400 m sprinters run circles around your racist logic…
We’re far enough into the year to see the end of student teaching for you, but can I say? I continue to struggle. I feel at war with fourth period. So many students in fourth period have problems from the news: illiteracy, apathy, goldfish memories, hummingbird focus… I asked to see Yourhigness’ assignment the other day, but he wouldn’t show me the paper. At first he was preoccupied eating a carton of macaroni salad and egg rolls over the corner garbage can, but when he got to his seat he still wouldn’t show me. He covered the paper with his arms. “Part of my job is to monitor your writing,” I said. He held the paper up and said, “I’ll read it out loud.” After two or three sentences of reading, he looked me in the eye and kept talking as if the words on the page had slid off the edge and were dangling in the air between us. “Are you reading?” I interrupted. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m reading.”
I’m writing from a Saturday class I have to take to keep my Career & Technical Education Certificate. (Journalism is cross-credited so I need both CTE and English endorsements.) I’m trying to pay attention to the instructor but keep thinking about the students we share, especially Yourhighness and Cordonte. I love that you took time during 4th period to talk one-on-one with Yourhighness and answer his questions about college: where you went, how to get in, the cost. Forging relationships like this will make your teaching more powerful and our students’ learning more meaningful, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here: spend some time focusing on what you want to know.
My teacher just said, “Sometimes I think I should go back to teaching high school and relax.” Ha! After he told us about a Hawaiian vacation. Other than this once-a-month class, what else is he doing? Lugging elk meat through the North Cascades? I’m 20% of the students here. It’s Saturday. How did I get in The Breakfast Club?
Anyway, onto your questions—starting with the easiest and ending with the hardest.
What are some of the best methods for communicating with parents? What are some good ways for a teacher to relate to students and develop camaraderie? What do teachers gain from professional development?
A new teacher I know asked these questions. Tomorrow on Magical Teaching, I answer them honestly.
Karen Adams Severe, my Uncle Ron’s first wife, embroidered this crewel. My mom kept it displayed throughout our house growing up, and I keep it above the whiteboard in my classroom now. Every time I see it, I think of a few lines from a great Susan Kinsolving poem: “Trust that thirty thousand sword- / fish will never near a ship, that far / from cameras or cars elephant herds live / long elephant lives.”
When I moved into the classroom I’m in now, I found boxes of handouts with prescriptive instructions for writing essays: this essay should have a certain number of paragraphs, and each paragraph should have a certain number of sentences, and each sentence should sound exactly this particular way. No room for creativity or growth. Where were the wild animals in windy canyons? Must we tag every sentient being, every sentence?
Over the last five years I’ve come to understand how students who do not know how to think coherently can benefit from handouts like these: some people learning to build coherent thoughts by working inside someone else’s scaffolding. The teacher provides the pieces and the student assembles them. I try to remember it shouldn’t all be construction. Sometimes growth happens in the wild, and to love something is to give it room enough to grow.
Sorry I kept your questions in the parking lot so long. I wanted to give them the time and consideration they deserve.
I’ll try to avoid the education-ese, though I’m sure some floobie joobie has snuck into my professional lexicon when I wasn’t actively rebuffing it. So if your education program didn’t already make you unintelligible with nonsensical terms, I can help.
Before I regale you with the delights of my wisdom, let me say I spent much of my first six years justifying and acting defensive about everything I did as a teacher. To my principal, I defended my use of paper. (She said one of my students was allergic and that I should remove paper stapled to my walls. I asked if I should remove notebook paper from the class overall. She shook her head as if I were unreasonable.) To the vitriolic chatterboxes populating cable news channels and all the personal insecurities hanging on from adolescence, I defended my competence. To my mother, who to this day believes teachers are over-compensated for their work, I defended my pay. I’m not used to being vulnerable.
You’re going to screw-up as a new teacher. You are! Let’s be okay with that, and let’s be okay with sharing our foibles and flaws. I think we’ll both grow that way. I’ll start, if for no other reason than to leave a few tracks where I’m not supposed to go.
So you don’t eat a bowlful of your own hair.